Buddhist logico-epistemology

Buddhist logico-epistemology is a term used in Western scholarship for pramāṇa-vāda (doctrine of proof) and Hetu-vidya (science of causes). Pramāṇa-vāda is an epistemological study of the nature of knowledge; Hetu-vidya is a system of logic. These models developed in India during the 5th through 7th centuries.

The early Buddhist texts show that the historical Buddha was familiar with certain rules of reasoning used for debating purposes and made use of these against his opponents. He also seems to have held certain ideas about epistemology and reasoning, though he did not put forth a logico-epistemological system. The structure of debating rules and processes can be seen in the early Theravada text the Kathāvatthu.

The first Buddhist thinker to discuss logical and epistemic issues systematically was Vasubandhu in his Vāda-vidhi (“A Method for Argumentation”), who was influenced by the Hindu work on reasoning, the Nyāya-sūtra.

A mature system of Buddhist logic and epistemology was founded by the Buddhist scholar Dignāga (c. 480–540 CE) in his magnum opus, the Pramāṇa-samuccaya. Dharmakirti further developed this system with several innovations. Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika (‘Commentary on Valid Cognition’) became the main source of epistemology and reasoning in Tibetan Buddhism.


Scholars such as H.N. Randle and Fyodor Shcherbatskoy (1930s) initially employed terms such as “Indian Logic” and “Buddhist Logic” to refer to the Indian tradition of inference (anumana), epistemology (pramana) and ‘science of causes’ (hetu-vidya). This tradition developed in the orthodox Hindu tradition known as Nyaya as well as in Buddhist philosophy. Logic in classical India, writes Bimal Krishna Matilal, is “the systematic study of informal inference-patterns, the rules of debate, the identification of sound inference vis-à-vis sophistical argument, and similar topics”. As Matilal notes, this tradition developed out systematic debate theory (vadavidya):

Logic as the study of the form of correct arguments and inference patterns, developed in India from the methodology of philosophical debate. The art of conducting a philosophical debate was prevalent probably as early as the time of the Buddha and the Mahavira (Jina), but it became more systematic and methodical a few hundred years later.

‘Indian Logic’ should be understood as being a different system of logic than modern classical logic (e.g. modern predicate calculus), but as anumāna-theory, a system in its own right. ‘Indian Logic’ was also influenced by the study of grammar, whereas Classical Logic which principally informed modern Western Logic was influenced by the study of mathematics.

A key difference between Western Logic and Indian Logic is that certain epistemological issues are included within Indian Logic, whereas in modern Western Logic they are deliberately excluded. Indian Logic includes general questions regarding the ‘nature of the derivation of knowledge’, epistemology, from information supplied by evidence, evidence which in turn may be another item of knowledge. For this reason, other scholars use the term “logico-epistemology” to refer to this tradition, emphasizing the centrality of the epistemic project for Indian logical reasoning. According to Georges Dreyfus, while Western logic tends to be focused on formal validity and deduction:

The concern of Indian “logicians” is quite different. They intend to provide a critical and systematic analysis of the diverse means of correct cognition that we use practically in our quest for knowledge. In this task, they discuss the nature and types of pramana. Although Indian philosophers disagree on the types of cognition that can be considered valid, most recognize perception and inference as valid. Within this context, which is mostly epistemological and practically oriented, topics such as the nature and types of correct reasoning that pertain to logic in the large sense of the word are discussed.


Pramāṇa (Tib. tshad ma) is often translated as “valid cognition” or “instrument of knowledge” and refers to epistemic ways of knowing. Decisive in distinguishing Buddhist pramana from what is generally understood as Orthodox Hindu philosophy is the issue of epistemological justification. All schools of Indian logic recognize various sets of ‘valid justifications for knowledge’ or pramana. Buddhist logico-epistemology was influenced by the Nyāya school’s methodology, but where the Nyaya recognised a set of four pramanas—perception, inference, comparison and testimony—the Buddhists (i.e. the school of Dignaga) only recognized two: perception and inference. For Dignaga, comparison and testimony are just special forms of inference.

Most Indic pramanavada accept ‘perception’ (Sanskrit: pratyakṣa) and ‘inference’ (Sanskrit: anumāna), but for some schools of orthodox Hinduism the ‘received textual tradition’ (Sanskrit: āgamāḥ) is an epistemological category equal to perception and inference. The Buddhist logical tradition of Dignaga and Dharmakirti accept scriptural tradition only if it accords with pratyakṣa and anumāna. This view is thus in line with the Buddha’s injunction in the Kalama Sutta not to accept anything on mere tradition or scripture.


  • The Traditionalists (anussavika) who regarded knowledge as being derived from scriptural sources (the Brahmins who upheld the Vedas).
  • The Rationalists (takki vimamsi) who only used reasoning or takka (the skeptics and materialists).
  • The “Experientialists” who held that besides reasoning, a kind of supra-normal yogic insight was able to bring about unique forms of knowledge (the Jains, the middle and late Upanishadic sages). The time of the Gautama Buddha was a lively intellectual culture with many differing philosophical theories. KN Jayatilleke, in his “Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge”, uses the Pali Nikayas to glean the possible epistemological views of the historical Buddha and those of his contemporaries. According to his analysis of the Saṅgārava-sutta (AN 3.60), during the Buddha’s time, Indian views were divided into three major camps with regards to knowledge:

The Buddha rejected the first view in several texts such as the Kalama sutta, arguing that a claim to scriptural authority (sadda) was not a source of knowledge, as was claimed by the later Hindu Mimamsa school. The Buddha also seems to have criticized those who used reason (takka). According to Jayatilleke, in the Pali Nikayas, this term refers “primarily to denote the reasoning that was employed to construct and defend metaphysical theories and perhaps meant the reasoning of sophists and dialecticians only in a secondary sense”. The Buddha rejected metaphysical speculations, and put aside certain questions which he named the unanswerables (avyakatas), including questions about the soul and if the universe is eternal or not.

The Buddha’s epistemological view has been a subject of debate among modern scholars. Some such as David Kalupahana, have seen him first and foremost as an empiricist because of his teaching that knowledge required verification through the six sense fields (ayatanas). The Kalama sutta states that verification through one’s own personal experience (and the experiences of the wise) is an important means of knowledge.

However, the Buddha’s view of truth was also based on the soteriological and therapeutic concern of ending suffering. In the “Discourse to Prince Abhaya” (MN.I.392–4) the Buddha states that a belief should only be accepted if it leads to wholesome consequences. This has led scholars such as Mrs Rhys Davids and Vallée-Poussin to see the Buddha’s view as a form of Pragmatism. This sense of truth as what is useful is also shown by the Buddha’s parable of the arrow.

K. N. Jayatilleke sees Buddha’s epistemological view as a kind of empiricism which also includes a particular view of causation) (dependent origination): “inductive inferences in Buddhism are based on a theory of causation. These inferences are made on the data of perception. What is considered to constitute knowledge are direct inferences made on the basis of such perceptions.” Jayatilleke argues the Buddhas statements in the Nikayas tacitly imply an adherence to some form of correspondence theory, this is most explicit in the Apannaka Sutta (MN 60). He also notes that Coherentism is also taken as a criterion for truth in the Nikayas, which contains many instances of the Buddha debating opponents by showing how they have contradicted themselves. He also notes that the Buddha seems to have held that utility and truth go hand in hand, and therefore something which is true is also useful (and vice versa, something false is not useful for ending suffering).

Echoing this view, Christian Coseru writes:

canonical sources make quite clear that several distinct factors play a crucial role in the acquisition of knowledge. These are variously identified with the testimony of sense experience, introspective or intuitive experience, inferences drawn from these two types of experience, and some form of coherentism, which demands that truth claims remain consistent across the entire corpus of doctrine. Thus, to the extent that Buddhists employ reason, they do so primarily in order further to advance the empirical investigation of phenomena.

Debate and analysis

  • Īśvarasena, a disciple of Dignāga, and teacher of Dharmakīrti
  • Śaṅkarasvāmin, wrote an introduction to Dignāga’s logic
  • Jinendrabuddhi (7th or 8th century), a commentator on Dignāga’s Pramanasamuccaya
  • Bāhuleya, a commentator on Dignāga’s Nyāyamukha
  • Śāntarakṣita (725–788), merged the pramana tradition with Madhyamaka
  • Kamalaśīla, a student of Śāntarakṣita
  • Śubhakara (650–750), was particularly noteworthy because he composed a work which aimed at proving the objective reality of external things and thus attempted to disprove Vijñānavāda (the doctrine of consciousness, idealism)
  • Śākyabuddhi (ca. 700 C.E.), wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika
  • Chandragomin, purported author of the *Nyāyasiddhyāloka
  • Dharmottara (8th century), a philosopher from Kashmir who wrote some independent works and also a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu and on his Pramanaviniscaya.
  • Anandavardhana, wrote a sub commentary to Dharmottara’s Pramana-viniscaya commentary.
  • Vinītadeva (8th century), wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu
  • Śāntabhadra, wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu
  • Jinamitra, wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Nyāyabindu
  • Devendrabuddhi (7th century), wrote various commentaries, including one on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika
  • Karṇakagomin, wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika
  • Manorathanandin, wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika
  • Śakyamati, wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika
  • Arcaṭa, wrote a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Hetubindu
  • Prajñakaragupta (740–800 C.E.), author of the Pramāṇavārttikālaṅkāra (“Ornament of the Pramāṇavārttikā”)
  • Jina, a follower of Prajñakaragupta
  • Ravigupta, a follower of Prajñakaragupta
  • Yamari, a follower of Prajñakaragupta
  • Śubhagupta (720–780), was a Vaibhāṣika writer on pramana, according to Kamalaśīla
  • Śaṅkaranandana (10th century), a prolific author of at least 17 texts, known as “the second Dharmakīrti.”
  • Jñanasrimitra (975–1025), a “gate-scholar” at Vikramashila who wrote several original works
  • Paṇḍita Aśoka (980–1040)
  • Jñanasribhadra (1000–1100), wrote a commentary on the Pramāṇaviniścaya (Dharmakīrti)
  • Jayanta (1020–1080), author of the Pramāṇavārttikālaṅkāraṭīkā, a commentary on Prajñakaragupta’s text.
  • Jitāri or Jetāri (940–1000), teacher of Atisha and author of numerous pramana texts.
  • Durvekamiśra (970–1030), a disciple of Jitāri
  • Ratnakīrti (11th century), a student of Jñanasrimitra
  • Mokṣākaragupta (11th–12th centuries), author of the Tarkabhāṣā
  • Vidyākaraśānti (1100–1200), author of the Tarkasopāna
  • Śākyaśrībhadra, a Kashmiri pandita who was the teacher of the Tibetan Sakya Pandita The Early Buddhist Texts show that during this period many different kinds of philosophers often engaged in public debates (vivada). The early texts also mention that there was a set procedure (patipada) for these debates and that if someone does not abide by it they are unsuitable to be debated. There also seems to have been at least a basic conception of valid and invalid reasoning, including, according to Jayatilleke, fallacies (hetvabhasah) such as petitio principii. Various fallacies were further covered under what were called nigrahasthana or “reasons for censure” by which one could lose the debate. Other nigrahasthanas included arthantaram or “shifting the topic”, and not giving a coherent reply.

According to Jayatilleke, ‘pure reasoning’ or ‘a priori’ reasoning is rejected by the Buddha as a source of knowledge. While reason could be useful in deliberation, it could not establish truth on its own.

In contrast to his opponents, the Buddha termed himself a defender of ‘analysis’ or ‘vibhajjavada

Influence and reception

Dignāga also influenced non-Buddhist Sanskrit thinkers. According to Lawrence J. McCrea, and Parimal G. Patil, Dignaga set in motion an “epistemic turn” in Indian philosophy: “In the centuries following Dignāga’s work, virtually all philosophical questions were reconfigured as epistemological ones. That is, when making any claim at all, it came to be seen as incumbent on a philosopher to situate that claim within a fully developed theory of knowledge. The systematic articulation and interrogation of the underlying presuppositions of all knowledge claims thus became the central preoccupation of most Sanskrit philosophers.”

The Hindu philosophers, especially those of the Nyāya, Vaiseshika and Vedanta schools, were in constant debate with the Buddhist epistemologists, developing arguments to defend their realist position against the nominalism of the Buddhists. Nyāya-Vaiseshika thinkers such as Uddyotakara and Prashastapada critiqued the views of Dignaga as they developed their own philosophy.

Vācaspati Miśra’s Nyāya-vārtika-tātparya-tikā is almost entirely focused on outlining and defeating the arguments of the Buddhist epistemologists. Prabhākara (active c. 6th century) meanwhile, may have been influenced by Buddhist reasoning to move away from some of the realistic views of older Mīmāṃsā thought. The Vedanta scholar Śrīharṣa who attacked the realism of Nyāya may have been influenced by the Buddhists as well. Even the “New Reason” (Navya Nyāya) scholar Gaṅgeśa Upādhyāya shows an influence from the Buddhist epistemological school, in his arrangement of his Tattvacintāmaṇi.


!Maker_unknown,Sino-Tibetan-Acarya_Bhavaviveka_Converts_a_Nonbeliever_to_Buddhism-_Google_Art_Project Bhāvaviveka (c. 500 – c. 578) appears to be the first Buddhist logician to employ the ‘formal syllogism’ (Wylie: sbyor ba’i tshig; Sanskrit: prayoga-vākya) in expounding the Mādhyamaka view, which he employed to considerable effect in his commentary to Nagarjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā entitled the Prajñāpradīpa. To develop his arguments for emptiness, Bhāvaviveka drew on the work of Dignāga which put forth a new way of presenting logical arguments.

Bhāvaviveka was later criticized by Chandrakirti (540-600) for his use of these positive logical arguments. For Chandrakirti, a true Mādhyamika only uses reductio ad absurdum arguments and does not put forth positive arguments. Chandrakirti saw in the logico-epistemic tradition a commitment to a foundationalist epistemology and essentialist ontology. For Chandrakirti, a Mādhyamika’s job should be to just deconstruct concepts which presuppose an essence.

The Svātantrika Mādhyamikas

In spite of Chandrakirti’s critique, later Buddhist philosophers continued to explain Madhyamaka philosophy through the use of formal syllogisms as well as adopting the conceptual schemas of the Dignaga-Dharmakirti school (and the closely related Yogacara school). These figures include Jñanagarbha (700–760), Śāntarakṣita (725–788), Kamalaśīla, Haribhadra) and Ratnākaraśānti (c.1000). Another thinker who worked on both pramana and Madhyamaka was the Kashmiri pandita Parahitabhadra.

This tendency within Madhyamaka is termed Svātantrika, while Chandrakirti’s stance is termed Prasangika. The Svatantrika-Prasaṅgika distinction is a central topic of debate in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

Probably the most influential figure in this tradition is Śāntarakṣita. According to James Blumenthal Śāntarakṣita attempted to integrate the anti-essentialism of Nāgārjuna with the logico-epistemological thought of Dignāga (ca. 6th c.) and Dharmakīrti (ca. 7th c.) along with facets of Yogācāra/Cittamātra thought into one internally consistent, yet fundamentally Madhyamaka system. This synthesis is one of the last major developments in Indian Buddhist thought, and has been influential on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.

In the Tibetan tradition

Tom Tillemans, in discussing the Tibetan translation and assimilation of the logico-epistemological tradition, identifies two currents and transmission streams:

The first is the tradition of the Kadampa scholar Ngok Lodzawa Loden Shayrap (1059–1109) and Chapa Chögyi Sengge (1109–69) and their disciples, mainly located at Sangpu Neutok. Chapa’s Tshad ma’i bsdus pa (English: ‘Summaries of Epistemology and Logic’) became the groundwork for the ‘Collected Topics’ (Tibetan: Düra; Wylie: bsdus grwa) literature, which in large part furnished the Gelugpa-based logical architecture and epistemology. These two scholars (whose works are now lost) strengthened the influence of Dharmakirti in Tibetan Buddhist scholarship.

There is also another tradition of interpretation founded by Sakya Pandita (1182–1251), who wrote the Tshad-ma rigs-gter (English: “Treasury of Logic on Valid Cognition”). Sakya pandita secured the place of Dharmakirti’s pramanavarttika as the foundational text on epistemology in Tibet. Later thinkers of the Gelug school such as Gyeltsap and Kaydrup attempted a synthesis of the two traditions, with varying results. This is because the views of Chapa were mostly that of Philosophical realism, while Sakya pandita was an anti-realist.


  • Argument: Vada, rtsod pa
  • Basis of cognition: Alambana
  • Characteristic: laksana, mtshan nid
  • Condition: pratyaya, rkyen
  • Causal function, purpose: arthakriyā
  • Debate: Vivada
  • Demonstrandum: sadhya, bsgrub par bya ba
  • Demonstrator: sadhaka, grub byed
  • Dialectician: tartika, rtog ge ba
  • Dialectics: tarka, rtog ge
  • Direct perception: pratyaksa, mngon sum
  • Event: dharma, chos
  • Event-associate: dharmin, chos can
  • Exclusion: Apoha, sel ba (Anya-apoha: gzhan sel ba)
  • Exemplification: drstanta, dpe
  • Inference: anumana, rjes su dpag pa
  • Inference for oneself, reasoning: svārthānumāna
  • Inference for others, demonstration: parārthānumāna
  • Interference: vyavakirana, ‘dres pa
  • Invariable concomitance: avinabhava, med na mi ‘byun ba
  • Judgment: prajnanana, shes-rab
  • Justification: hetu, gtan-tshigs
  • Means of valid cognition: pramana, tshad ma
  • Means of evidence: linga, rtags
  • Particular: svalakṣaṇa
  • Pervading/pervasion/logical pervasion: vyapti, khyab pa
  • Perception, Sensation: pratyaksa
  • Universal, General attribute: Samanyalaksana

See also

  • Dharmakirti
  • Kathavatthu
  • Nyaya

Further reading

  • Jayatilleke, K.N. (1967). ‘The Logic of Four Alternatives’. Philosophy East and West. Vol.17:1-4. Hawaii, USA: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Rogers, Katherine Manchester. Tibetan Logic Snow Lion Publications, 2009.
  • Van Der Kuijp, Leonard W. J. (1978). ‘Phya-pa Chos-kyi seng-ge’s impact on Tibetan epistemological theory’. Journal of Indian Philosophy. Volume 5, Number 4, August, 1978. Springer Netherlands. (Print) (Online)
  • Van Der Kuijp, Leonard W. J. (1987). ‘An early Tibetan view of the soteriology of Buddhist epistemology: The case of ‘Bri-gung ‘jig-rten mgon-po’. Journal of Indian Philosophy. Volume 15, Number 1, March, 1987. (Print) (Online)
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna & Evans, Robert D. (eds.) (1986). Buddhist Logic and Epistemology. Studies in the Buddhist Analysis of Inference and Language, Dordrecht: Reidel.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna, Epistemology, Logic, and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis, edited by Jonardon Ganeri, Oxford University Press, new edition 2005 (first edition 1971), ISBN: 0-19-566658-5.
  • Matilal, Bimal Krishna, The Character of Logic in India State University of New York Press 1998
  • Wayman, Alex (1999). A Millennium of Buddhist Logic, Delhi: Matilal Barnassidas.
  • Dreyfus, Georges B. J. Recognizing Reality: Dharmakirti’s Philosophy and Its Tibetan Interpretations. SUNY Press, 1997.
  • Hayes. Dignaga on the Interpretation of Signs. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012
  • F. Th. Stcherbatsky. Buddhist Logic (2 vols., 1930–32)
  • Dunne, John D. Foundations of Dharmakirti’s Philosophy, Wisdom Publications, 2004.
  • Vidhabhusana, Satis Chandra (1907). History of the Mediaeval School of Indian Logic. Calcutta University.
  • Tobden, Tashi (Ed.in Chief); Sadhukhan, Sanjit Kumar (compiler); Dokham, Rigzin Ngodub (compiler) (1994). Bulletin of Tibetology: Special Volume on the History of Buddhist Logic. New Series, no.3. Gangtok, Sikkim: Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology
  • Buddhist logic with an annotated bibliography